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Technology is key to 'future-proof' industry, stave off critics, miners say

Leaders from Northern Star Resources Ltd., Gold Fields Ltd. and Roy Hill Holdings Pty. Ltd. said technology is the key to ensuring the industry's survival, but a Deloitte partner sounded caution amid fears that were highlighted at a major mining conference in Western Australia about automation potentially leading to "massive" job losses.

Marking the launch of its report "The Mining Matrix," Deloitte and the Gold Industry Group hosted a function in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, on Aug. 7 where Northern Star CEO Stuart Tonkin, Gold Fields Mining Vice President Kate Sommerville, Deloitte partner Julie Harrison and investor relations firm Cannings Purple Managing Director Warrick Hazeldine discussed how the industry can overcome negative perceptions.

Deloitte's Western Australia mining leader, Nicki Ivory, said stock price underperformance relative to other stocks, fractious community relations, legacies of weak environmental practices and a historical lack of workforce diversity have all tarnished the mining sector's reputation.

"We need to communicate clearly the extent of innovation across the mining industry in Australia, the value digital disruption is already delivering in the sector, and the positive impact of the future of work on roles and jobs across the mining value chain," Ivory said Aug. 7.

While Hazeldine said the "erosion of corporate trust" was not exclusive to mining, Deloitte's survey at the Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum in Kalgoorlie revealed that the "future of work" was one of the key challenges for the sector.

Harrison said that while there are roles that have not been thought of yet, the mining sector can use algorithms to predict some of the impact of automation on their operations.

"There is now the opportunity to make the conversation real. The whole discussion around the future of work has been very conceptual for quite some time," whereas now, the industry can start working out where re-skilling can occur, particularly for people in roles that will be highly automated such as robotic process automation or "transactional-type roles," Harrison said. "Just because you can automate a role, doesn't mean you should."

While Harrison said that such fears need not fester as the industry's history shows there has always been a significant uptick in new roles when new technologies emerge, Sommerville admitted that workers in Gold Fields' Western Australia and African operations are "very worried about job losses, so they resist technology."

"In terms of automation, the less skilled are going to be more vulnerable, so it's about re-education," Sommerville said. "Operating in Ghana, Peru, Chile, South Africa and Australia, it's important for us to be sustainable and profitable because if we do that, we stay in business. In Ghana, in particular, the communities are very close to our mines, so relationships are very important."

Sommerville said one of the "most amazing" changes she observed in 2017 was how contractors' ability to deliver outcomes regarding indigenous communities and partnerships was given as much attention during the tendering process for the Gruyere JV as safety.

Technology roadblocks, potential

Tonkin said the key was having the flexibility of "listening to your team and people," though the "roadblocks" to moving forward with technology are often the rules the industry has put in place over recent decades, "but as the environment changes you have to keep changing and developing that operating environment."

"Over the last 15 to 20 years, the industry has scripted a rules-based system that stops people from thinking, so a lot of the barriers are self-created. Most technical issues mean fixing variables, [and] people never go back to challenging assumptions that have been developed," Tonkin said.

Tonkin said the solution is often as simple as asking individuals what is holding them up, which then either helps develop the answer to rectify the issue or educates the individual as to why the roadblock may be necessary.

Roy Hill Holdings CEO Barry Fitzgerald said all Roy Hill employees and all the delegates need to "understand technology to future-proof yourselves. Your lives will change enormously in the next 10 to 20 years through technology, and you need and we need to understand how it will work, how you can use it, and how we can thrive and prosper with it."

"It's a very powerful message for our workforce as they face the prospect of automating drills and trucks and introducing more and more robots and autonomy through the business," Fitzgerald said.